We started with the soft stuff. Movies and shows kids would watch. But over the last week, we’d worked our way up to the harder titles. We went from Hocus Pocus to Eli, a Netflix original about a troubled little boy. It wasn’t the scariest choice, but still: It was progress. For as squeamish as my roommates were, they were also good sports, willing to humor me and my incessant love of spooky stories and all things apocalyptic.
And with Halloween five days away, I had finally convinced them that they were, in fact, ready to watch something properly scary.
Sophie and I talked about what we’d watch as we walked home Saturday night. We could watch The Shining. (Classic.) Or Sunshine. Or The Babadook or The Conjuring. There were so many options. It put an extra pep in my step, just thinking about them all.
As we crossed the street, a familiar figure sauntered our way. Jordan, Sophie’s husband, my brother-in-law and our third roommate stopped to meet us.
“Where are you headed?” we asked.
“To meet you guys,” he said. “There was some crazy guy yelling in the alley.”
Now, the fact that we lived down a sketchy-looking alley was often a source of great confusion for anyone driving us home. “You sure you want me to drop you off here?” drivers often asked, peering at me hesitantly in the rearview mirror. I could see them looking for signs of a cardboard-box structure or a semi-permanent tent set-up that I might call home. I was used to it. “Here’s fine!” I’d say.
The truth was our building was actually pretty nice, the nicest place I’d ever lived. We had vaulted ceilings, a gym, a jacuzzi, a rooftop lounge, and even an attached Michelin-starred restaurant if you felt like dropping $400 on dinner.
But for the last few blocks home, aside from the Halloween music spilling out from open bar doors and the occasional scarecrow or cat smoking on the sidewalk, everything in the neighborhood seemed pretty quiet.
No one in the alley. No one hanging around out front.
The coast was clear.
Jordan scanned his key fob at the lobby door and we filed in. Just as the door closed behind us, we saw him. The crazy guy stood in the corner, wearing a black cut-off shirt, staring intently at a dollar bill an inch from his face.
We walked past him and hit the elevator button, which was almost entirely covered by The Man in Black. As we stood waiting for its arrival, I realized we’d fallen silent. And the key, I felt, and which I tried to beam telepathically to Sophie and Jordan, was to act like everything was normal. To make him feel like no one was staring at him. No one was uncomfortable. No one suspected a thing.
But it was hard not to notice. Because he was looking at the dollar bill like he was deciphering a secret message. And I could smell him. The distinct smell of a person who has not bathed in a long time. (Although to be honest, I don’t know for a fact how long it actually takes for that smell to develop. I sometimes start to get distinctly smelly even after just a day of sitting on a long international flight. So maybe it doesn’t take that long after all.)
So while Sophie and Jordan started talking again, I half listened while sneaking glances at The Man in Black. His eyes had moved. He was watching us. In a deeply unsettling way.
The elevator arrived then, opening its doors to receive us and swooping us back into the sky, to the haven of the fifth floor, to the safety of our apartment, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, glittery views of the city skyline and under-appreciated front door that separated us inside from everyone else outside.
Immediately after we came in and locked the door behind us, I sat down at the kitchen table. And in a move most unlike me, I looked for the non-emergency phone number for the San Francisco Police department, annoyed to find it buried mid-way down the search results, and reported the man in the lobby. Sophie gave me a look when I hung up.
“What? See something, say something, right?” I said.
“I guess so,” she shrugged.
I sighed. Maybe I was being a little dramatic. I got up and went to the bathroom. Sitting down on the toilet, I saw what I’d been looking for the past 8 days: my period. It had been late and now it was here. All over my underwear and pants. Wrapping a towel around my waist, I carefully stepped out of each pant leg.
And that’s when I heard it. The undeniable commotion of someone shouting. It was so loud and so angry, it made my heart stop.
I came out of the bathroom still wrapped in my towel. In front of me, time slowed so that it felt like everything was moving under water. Jordan stood on one side of the room, frozen in place, while Sophie stood across from him in the doorway of their bedroom. She had been in the middle of changing her clothes. The commotion was in the hallway.
“Call 9-1-1 right now,” she said to him quietly, emphasizing each word with a precise, almost militant finger point. It was like she was dialing an invisible rotary phone in front of her.
The commotion got even louder. He was at our door, banging on it so hard that it rattled on its hinges.
“You mother f*ckers better f*cking come out right now,” he shouted, as he took turns ringing the doorbell, throwing his fists on the wood and shaking the door handle. He’d watched the elevator swoop us up to the fifth floor, I realized. He’d followed us here.
Like a light switch flip, whatever time mechanism had been at play moments earlier now reversed itself. Everything began happening very quickly.
For starters, the lights went out. Sophie or Jordan must have thought that was better because clearly The Man in Black was looking for someone to be home, to be on the receiving end of his tirade. I desperately needed to put pants on in case he managed to get in. Or if we needed to run. I stumbled around in my dark room, cursing myself for not cleaning it up sooner.
I located a pair of underwear and a pad and was about to put them on when Jordan appeared in the doorway.
“Here, take this,” he said, handing me our red plastic-handled chef’s knife from the kitchen.
I thanked him and took it, placing it down where I wouldn’t accidentally step on it, and put on my underwear. First things first. After I’d gotten dressed, I considered picking it up again, but realized it actually made me feel less safe holding it so I left it off to the side. I felt my heart racing at the edge of my chest.
The Man in Black was moving up and down the hallway, pounding on doors and shaking door handles, trying to get in somewhere, anywhere.
I found Sophie in her room, half dressed, talking to the 9-1-1 operator.
“Yes, my sister just called,” she explained, followed by a pause.
“What’s changed?” she asked incredulously. “What’s changed is that the guy is at our door threatening us and trying to get in.”
“They’re sending police over,” she said finally when she got off the phone.
“We should put our shoes on,” I said.
The three of us put our shoes on in the darkness of my cluttered room, the windowless nature of it being deemed the safest space.
Now all properly clothed, we stood in my room, with Jordan clutching the purple plastic Santoku knife, listening to our hearts thumping. Every now and again, The Man in Black returned to abuse the door. Each time highlighting just how frail and flimsy the front door really was.
Sophie called 9-1-1 again. She was bent over, forming an almost-perfect right angle with the floor, as if somehow that was a quieter way to talk. We could still hear The Man in Black, but he was more muffled now. Like he was in the stairwell next to my room. And if that was the case, it was only a matter of time before he found the door that led out to our patio and all that fragile floor-to-ceiling glass just waiting to be broken.
“Police,” came a brusque voice. “Open up.”
It sounded like the voice was outside our neighbor’s door.
We moved from my room to the front door, each pressing an ear against the wood.
“Should I go out there?” Jordan asked.
“No,” Sophie said, still holding the phone, talking to the 9-1-1 operator.
“Ask if the police are here,” Jordan said.
She walked back to my room.
“They’re on site,” Sophie call-whispered out to us.
Jordan opened the door and slipped out. I could hear them asking him questions. Were we the ones who’d called them? Where was the guy now?
Jordan’s explanations were interrupted by the aggressive shouting coming from 515B, the apartment diagonal to us.
“Is that normal?” one of the cops asked.
“No,” Jordan said.
They knocked on the door and inside was The Man in Black, who’d managed to find an unlocked apartment to slip inside.
Jordan came back inside. We closed the door again and resumed pressing our ears against it to listen.
The Man in Black had managed to gain some composure and speak in a regular voice. If what he said next wasn’t so crazy, he might have been more convincing.
“I live here,” he told the police. “I live here with my girlfriend. And she’s in there being raped by a white guy. She’s Asian. She’s of Chinese descent and she’s being raped by a white guy.”
Sophie nodded. “That’s us,” she said. “We’re Asian. And Jordan’s the white guy.”
We had worked our way into his delusion.
We could’t make out the rest of what he said, but after 30 minutes had passed, I started worrying the police might actually believe him and leave him in the apartment.
We moved to sit at the kitchen table.
“What’s that noise?” Sophie asked.
I heard it, too: a quiet wailing. It was chilling. Was it the police? Were they in trouble? Did they need hel—
“Oops, that’s me,” Jordan said. “I was trying to put on spooky Halloween sounds to scare you when you guys got home.”
He moved to the table and turned the volume down on our Alexa. And I thought my period had been badly timed.
After what felt like forever, two policemen finally came over. They took a mini statement. copied down information from my ID, and then told us the situation.
“He says he lives there,” the taller one said, as if that explained everything.
Well, he was also terrorizing us and everyone on this floor, I clapped back (in my head, four hours after the fact). Out loud I said, “I don’t think he lives there.”
They slipped back into the hallway.
I was still worried they would leave him in 515B when the two cops appeared at our door again. They’d finally straightened it out, confirming The Man in Black was NOT the rightful 515B resident but was in fact a deranged mixed-up man.
Detective work at its finest.
“We’re going to need you to identify him,” the shorter cop said to me.
“Don’t worry,” Shortie said. “We have ways to prevent him from seeing you when you do it.”
Sophie made me put on a big sweatshirt, which I zipped up, pulling the hood over my head. Jordan put on a baseball hat and came out into the hallway with me.
The Man in Black stood down the hallway surrounded by a couple of cops. Shortie stood next to us, and shone his flashlight on The Man in Black some 35 feet away. It was not the kind of identity-protection trick I’d expected. The light he shone diffused into a soft glow by the time it reached The Man in Black all the way at the other end of the hall.
We stepped back inside our apartment.
“That was him,” Jordan and I confirmed.
“Ok,” Shortie said. “That’s all we need. We’ll be taking him in.”
And with that, he gave us a slip of paper with a case number on it, clicked his pen, and was on his way.
Sophie closed the door behind him and narrowed her eyes.
“Who wants to watch a scary movie, now?” she asked.